Thursday, April 30, 2009

Talk: Erasmus and Charles Darwin on Evolution

A talk by Dr Chris Smith:

Erasmus and Charles Darwin on Evolution

Speaker: Dr Chris Smith
Date: Thursday 7 May
Time: 7.00pm
Cost: Free - Booking advised

Location: Thinktank, Millenium Point, Curzon Street, B4 7XJ

Erasmus Darwin has been called 'England's Leonardo' and the 'greatest polymath of his age'. Perhaps his greatest achievement was to develop a theory of organic evolution some sixty years before the publication of the Origin of Species. This talk reviews Erasmus Darwin's life in the Midlands and compares his thought with that of his more famous grandson.

Dr Chris Smith is an Honorary Visiting Fellow in the Department of Vision Sciences at Aston Dr Chris Smith is Honorary Visiting Fellow in the Department of Vision Sciences at Aston University and Honorary Research Fellow in the Centre for the History of Medicine at the University of Birmingham. He was Chair of the Erasmus Darwin Bicentennial Committee (1999-2002) and joint editor of The Genius of Erasmus Darwin (Ashgate, 2005). His first publication on Charles Darwin dates back to 1977.

Don't miss this opportunity to come and hear him.

To Book
Seats for our lecture are on a first come first served basis but if you would like to ensure a place please send an email to

Convergent evolution featuring The Apprentice and The Origin

UK readers who watched last night's edition of the cult TV show The Apprentice might be interested to see life imitating art, or convergent evolution in action. Last night the task set by Sir Alan was for the two teams to sell off a job lot of second-hand books, which included a hidden treasure--a first edition of Ian Fleming's Octopussy and the Living Daylights. Earlier today, a rare first edition of On The Origin of Species was sold off at auction in Norfolk for £35,000 (BBC story here). But remarkably, the seller had acquired the book as part of a job lot of books bought for a few pounds back in the 1970s!

A colleague suggested that I stop the renovation work on my house and divert the money to acquiring the book, but alas I was too late. And my wife would have probably divorced me on grounds of "unreasonable behaviour"!

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Obama's stirring speech on science skirts around the "e word"

Barack Obama gave a stirring speech on the place of science in the American dream yesterday, while addressing the US National Academy of Science. Curiously, the speech didn't even get mentioned in the UK press and is buried away in the Science and Technology section of the BBC News website. And it stands in marked contrast to the miserly and short-sighted treatment of science by the British government in our recent budget!

You can access the full text of the speech via the White House website and watch it or listen to it via the National Academy web site.
There are some great lines:
"At such a difficult moment, there are those who say we cannot afford to invest in science, that support for research is somehow a luxury at moments defined by necessities. I fundamentally disagree. Science is more essential for our prosperity, our security, our health, our environment, and our quality of life than it has ever been before...
A half century ago, this nation made a commitment to lead the world in scientific and technological innovation; to invest in education, in research, in engineering; to set a goal of reaching space and engaging every citizen in that historic mission. That was the high water mark of America's investment in research and development. And since then our investments have steadily declined as a share of our national income. As a result, other countries are now beginning to pull ahead in the pursuit of this generation's great discoveries.

I believe it is not in our character, the American character, to follow. It's our character to lead. And it is time for us to lead once again. So I'm here today to set this goal: We will devote more than 3 percent of our GDP to research and development. We will not just meet, but we will exceed the level achieved at the height of the space race, through policies that invest in basic and applied research, create new incentives for private innovation, promote breakthroughs in energy and medicine, and improve education in math and science.

This represents the largest commitment to scientific research and innovation in American history."
It's great to see Obama lavishing praise on basic science and not looking for immediate payback:
"The fact is an investigation into a particular physical, chemical, or biological process might not pay off for a year, or a decade, or at all. And when it does, the rewards are often broadly shared, enjoyed by those who bore its costs but also by those who did not.

And that's why the private sector generally under-invests in basic science, and why the public sector must invest in this kind of research -- because while the risks may be large, so are the rewards for our economy and our society.

No one can predict what new applications will be born of basic research: new treatments in our hospitals, or new sources of efficient energy; new building materials; new kinds of crops more resistant to heat and to drought."

But what I think is most interesting is the way in which Obama skirts around the issue of evolution and its place in the American education system. He harks back to the sputnik era and the space race, which spawned a renewed investment in science teaching and re-introduced the teaching of evolution in American public schools:
"When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik a little more than a half century ago, Americans were stunned. The Russians had beaten us to space. And we had to make a choice: We could accept defeat or we could accept the challenge. And as always, we chose to accept the challenge.

President Eisenhower signed legislation to create NASA and to invest in science and math education, from grade school to graduate school. And just a few years later, a month after his address to the 1961 Annual Meeting of the National Academy of Sciences, President Kennedy boldly declared before a joint session of Congress that the United States would send a man to the moon and return him safely to the Earth."
And he promises a renewed commitment to education in science and maths, that parallels that of the Sputnik era and he challenges states "to dramatically improve achievement in math and science by raising standards, modernizing science labs, upgrading curriculum, and forging partnerships to improve the use of science and technology in our classrooms."

Towards the end of the speech, he gently touches on the issue of the impact of science on religion, leaving the issue of evolution hanging in the air for any perceptive listener, but he can never quite bring himself to utter the "e word":
"Yes, scientific innovation offers us a chance to achieve prosperity. It has offered us benefits that have improved our health and our lives -- improvements we take too easily for granted. But it gives us something more. At root, science forces us to reckon with the truth as best as we can ascertain it.

And some truths fill us with awe. Others force us to question long-held views. Science can't answer every question, and indeed, it seems at times the more we plumb the mysteries of the physical world, the more humble we must be. Science cannot supplant our ethics or our values, our principles or our faith. But science can inform those things and help put those values -- these moral sentiments, that faith -- can put those things to work -- to feed a child, or to heal the sick, to be good stewards of this Earth."
The message is clear: a renewed investment in science education is going to challenge the "long-held views"of much of the American public and force evolution and all the issues surrounding it into the American classroom with renewed vigour. But the elephant in the room isn't mentioned! I look forward to the time when Obama feels comfortable enough to use the "e word" directly and forcefully in one of his speeches without equivocating or skirting around the subject—when he uses his the full force of his oratorical skills to call on the listener to defend and extend the Theory of Evolution!

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Darwin's Kampf

Today's issue of Nature contains an interesting letter from Professor Ulrich Kutschera, in which he points out that Darwin's interpretation of "the struggle for existence" was wider than most people think. In particular, Darwin objected to the translation of the phrase into German as "Kampf um's Dasein", writing in a letter to the physiologist Wilhelm T. Preyer on 29 March 1869:
"I suspect that the German term, Kampf etc., does not give quite the same idea. The words 'struggle for existence' express, I think, exactly what 'concurrency' does. It is correct to say in English that two men struggle for existence, who may be hunting for the same food during a famine, and likewise when a single man is hunting for food; or again it may be said that a man struggles for existence against the waves of the sea when shipwrecked."

Kutschera then goes on to claim that the definition of "concurrency" includes cooperation and competition. I am not sure I agree with this interpretation. Instead, I think it is worth pointing out the value of Darwin's central insight, that the struggle for existence includes not just the struggle between, say, the lion and the zebra, but should be used more widely in a broad metaphorical sense and is in fact most intense between organisms within the same species:

I should premise that I use the term Struggle for Existence in a large and metaphorical sense, including dependence of one being on another, and including (which is more important) not only the life of the individual, but success in leaving progeny. Two canine animals in a time of dearth, may be truly said to struggle with each other which shall get food and live. But a plant on the edge of a desert is said to struggle for life against the drought, though more properly it should be said to be dependent on the moisture. A plant which annually produces a thousand seeds, of which on an average only one comes to maturity, may be more truly said to struggle with the plants of the same and other kinds which already clothe the ground. The missletoe is dependent on the apple and a few other trees, but can only in a far-fetched sense be said to struggle with these trees, for if too many of these parasites grow on the same tree, it will languish and die. But several seedling missletoes, growing close together on the same branch, may more truly be said to struggle with each other. As the missletoe is disseminated by birds, its existence depends on birds; and it may metaphorically be said to struggle with other fruit-bearing plants, in order to tempt birds to devour and thus disseminate its seeds rather than those of other plants. In these several senses, which pass into each other, I use for convenience sake the general term of struggle for existence. On the Origin of Species (1859), Chapter III

This point is nicely illustrated by a joke about two zoo-keepers. On doing their rounds after the zoo has closed, they notice that one of the lions has escaped from its enclosure and is advancing towards them. One says to the other: "Oh dear, what are we going to do now?". The other replies "I don't know about you, but I am going to run!", to which the first zookeeper replies: "But don't be silly, you can't outrun a lion!", which elicits the reply: "I don't need to outrun the lion. I just need to outrun you!"

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Darwin, Pasteur, their sleep among the immortals and the need to dig back to primary sources

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a short piece for the magazine Microbiology Today, entitled Darwin; from the origin of species to the origin of infection. Once it has been published in a week or two's time in the May edition of the magazine, I will be able to share the piece in full with you. But today I checked through the proofs, made a few minor alterations and then stumbled across a major problem. 

Primed by all the Darwin misquotes and myths I have encountered, I started to doubt the veracity of an oft-cited quotation from Louis Pasteur that I had used:
"Virulence appears in a new light which cannot but be alarming to humanity; unless nature, in her evolution down the ages (an evolution which, as we now know, has been going on for millions, nay, hundreds of millions of years), has finally exhausted all the possibilities of producing virulent or contagious diseases -- which does not seem very likely."
I first found the quote in Claim CA114.22 in the Index to Creationist Claims on the website, but it has been propagated in many places elsewhere. On the face of it, it appears to lend support to the idea that Pasteur accepted Deep Time, one of the pre-requisites for Darwin's Theory of Evolution and rejected Biblical Young Earth Creationism. But something in that parenthetic phrase about "millions, nay, hundreds of millions of years" jarred with me. And of course, the quotation cannot be precisely original, as Pasteur would have written it in French.

Pasteur was clearly aware of the issues of evolution and Deep Time. In his address to the Sorbonne in 1864 on Spontaneous Generation, Pasteur opens with these ponderous tones:
"Mesdames et messieurs. De bien grands problèmes s'agitent aujourd'hui et tiennent tous les esprits en éveil: unité ou multiplicité des races humaines; création de l'homme depuis quelques mille ans ou depuis quelques mille siècles; fixité des espèces, ou transformation lente et progressive des espèces les unes dans les autres....
Ladies and Gentlemen. Great problems are in question today, keeping every thinking man in suspense: the unity or multiplicity of human races, the creation of man one thousand years or one thousand centuries ago; the fixity of species, or the slow and progressive transformation of one species into another...."
But here Pasteur is sitting on the fence, not actually saying what he believed. Aside from the now questionable quotation, I have found no evidence that Pasteur ever said anything about Darwin or Deep Time. 

And so, I chased up the source of the questionable quotation. The Index To Creationist Claims has the source as: "Cuny, Hilaire. 1965. Louis Pasteur: The man and his theories. Translated by P. Evans. London: The Scientific Book Club".

But sadly this work is not available on line (does anyone have a copy?). And in any case, to get at what Pasteur really said, we have to search in French. With my schoolboy Français and a few minutes with Google, I managed to track down the original Pasteur quote as follows:
"Et voilà que la virulence nous apparaît sous un jour nouveau qui ne laisse pas d'être inquiétant pour l'humanité, à moins que la nature, dans son évolution à travers les siècles passés, n'ait déjà rencontré toutes les occasions de production des maladies virulentes ou contagieuses, ce qui est fort invraisemblable."
which is documented on at least two sites:
But look carefully! No mention of millions of years here! Just "siècles passés" or "past centuries". So, where did the parenthetical phrase originate? My guess is that Hilaire Cuny added it to the original French version of his out-of-print biography of Pasteur (Louis Pasteur et le mystere de la vie), written in the 1960s, when Deep Time was well accepted.

And the sting in the tail? An article on the otherwise execrable Young Earth Creationist website Answers in Genesis arrived at a similar conclusion before me:
"The quote from Pasteur given above, without the parenthetical statement, appeared in an article co-authored by Pasteur (Pasteur, Chamberland, and Roux 1881, p. 203). The parenthetical statement was added at a later time by an unknown author."
So, I guess as proponents of evolution we have to be as careful with our use of quotations and take care to avoid the sin of quote-mining, just as we urge the creationists to do!

But before I close, let me share one more discovery with you. While nosing around the potential links between Darwin and Pasteur, I turned up a gem of an article from a 1923 issue of Science Magazine: Darwin and Pasteur: an essay in comparative biography. 

For some reason, Science magazine still insists that non-subscribers should pay for the article, even though it is now out of copyright. It is rather too long to reproduce in full here, but if anyone wants the whole text, let me know and I will supply it.

The editorial note that opens the essay is particularly poignant:
"The accompanying essay was left uncompleted by the late William Thompson Sedgwick [first president of what was to become the American Society for Microbiology] of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, when he died, as we all wish to, quickly and before his work was finished. Such an essay may be not only especially timely in this Pasteur anniversary, but may also be useful at a time when men of faith are attacked by men of ignorance and credulity.-G. J. P"
And the closing paragraphs give you a flavour of the writing—nobody writes articles like this any more!
"Both Darwin and Pasteur were fortunate in bringing out their great ideas at the right time. (Agnosticism in medicine, agnosticism in cosmology). The world was tired of supernaturalism and ready for naturalism. It was tired of confusion and ignorance concerning disease, and eagerly embraced the germ theory. 
The fame of Darwin has grown greater with the passing years. Darwinism has already become merged and may one day become submerged in the broader doctrine of evolution, of which it was the forerunner. Pasteur's name, curiously enough, is popularly best known in pasteurization, a process of applied science employed long before his day under other names and no name, but first made rational and scientific by him. But Pasteur's original ideas and discoveries have spread like an infection until today they cover the earth.
Darwin, the master of the organic world, sleeps near Newton, the master of the inorganic, in the great Abbey, among the most famous of his race. Pasteur rests alone in the chapel of his laboratory. The world claimed Darwin's body to place among its great ones. Science kept Pasteur's for its own. Both dwell forever among the immortals. The last half of the nineteenth century may well be called their age-the Age of Darwin and Pasteur."

Monday, April 20, 2009

15 Evolutionary Gems from Nature magazine

Nature magazine has created a neat resource entitled 15 Evolutionary Gems, which lists papers published by the journal that exemplify the power of evolutionary thinking.  The resource includes links to full text versions of the original papers, which are all well worth a look. Below is a lists of the topics covered:
Gems from the fossil record
1 Land-living ancestors of whales
2 From water to land
3 The origin of feathers
4 The evolutionary history of teeth
5 The origin of the vertebrate skeleton
Gems from habitats
6 Natural selection in speciation
7 Natural selection in lizards
8 A case of co-evolution
9 Differential dispersal in wild birds
10 Selective survival in wild guppies
11 Evolutionary history matters
Gems from molecular processes
12 Darwin’s Galapagos finches
13 Microevolution meets macroevolution
14 Toxin resistance in snakes and clams
15 Variation versus stability

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Darwin in the house: Baba Brinkman in the Vancouver Evolution Festival

Baba Brinkman, creator of the Rap Guide to Evolution is featured this week in an article entitled "Darwin in the House" in The Vancouver Courier. Check out the article here.

And if you are in or near Vancouver, you can see Baba perform in the Vancouver Evolution Festival over the Easter weekend.
  • April 9: Norm Theatre, Student Union Building (SUB), UBC, 4:00pm. Free event. 
  • April 10 and 11: Aisle 45, 45 West Hastings St., Gastown, doors at 7:30pm, show starts at 8:00pm. Admission $10 ($5 concession)

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Favourable reviews of The Rough Guide to Evolution: but what do you think?

I have to confess that I am a little disappointed that The Rough Guide to Evolution hasn't received more reviews, whether in the quality press or in blogs or even on the Amazon websites. I guess that the market is somewhat saturated with books on Darwin and evolution in this bicentenary year.

Anyhow, I am pleased to see three favourable reviews out there in cyberspace. The first, a five-star review on, has been up for some time and is from Ray Higginson from Pontypridd:
"This is a superb little book about evolution. Pallen's style is engaging, informative and at times funny (The section on Darwin's ipod, for example). What makes this such a good book is its up-to-date discussions on evolution and the science behind the 'theory'. Some textbooks on evolution can be a bit dry but this one is far from that and will serve as a great introduction to both evolutionary science and Darwin himself. A very fitting addition in the year celebrating 200 years since Darwin's birth. Great!"
Yesterday, this was joined by another five-star review, this time from John Kwok and on Kwok's review is far too long to quote in full (look at it here), but is generally highly positive:
"It is simply no exaggeration to regard [t]his book as the best, most succinct, introduction to evolution and its impact on human culture that I've encountered. It is, quite simply, an utterly delightful book, replete in clear, concise, prose."
Helpfully, Kwok includes a few hints at what should perhaps be included in the second edition (but note that many things had to be left out of the book for reasons of space!).

A couple of weeks ago, Gary McGrath McGath reviewed The Rough Guide to Evolution for the site LibraryThing. His review is also generally highly positive in tone, starting as follows:
The Rough Guide to Evolution is a very enjoyable and readable book on evolution, which everyone but the incurably ignorant can probably learn something new from. It presents some solid science without getting so deep as to lose non-specialist readers like me. It also has quite a bit of fun, citing The Simpsons and the Flying Spaghetti Monster as well as Mendel and Huxley.
Later, he quibbles over the fact that I mention in the book that the execrable film Expelled drew a legal challenge from Yoko Ono, but fail to mention that Ono lost the case. Well, there is no conspiracy here--when the relevant section was written, the case was still pending. I will make an amendment in the second edition. 

McGrath McGath also expresses a dislike for the Rough Guides house style, particularly the boxes that are interspersed with the body text. I find this curious, because, for me, this was one of the attractions of the house style, in that allowed one to go off on tangents and explore many more side topics that would be the case if everything had to be woven into one continuous narrative.

So, dear reader, what do you think of The Rough Guide to Evolution? What did you like or dislike? Did you like the boxes? Is there anything that you think I left out and should include in the next edition? Anything I should drop? And please feel free to add your own reviews to the and websites!

Friday, April 3, 2009

Celebrating Matthew Boulton in 2009

2009 is not just the bicentenary of the births of Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln and the death of Thomas Paine, but also the 200th anniversary of the death of Matthew Boulton, the English manufacturer, Lunar Society member, Fellow of the Royal Society and close friend of Charles Darwin's grandfathers, Erasmus Darwin and Josiah Wedgwood. 

Boulton was one of Birmingham's most famous sons. He established a foundry in Soho, to the north of the city centre (now in Handsworth), where he pioneered the manufacture of metal artwork. Through his collaboration with, and financial support for, James Watt, Boulton played a pivotal role in turning the "Boulton and Watt" steam engine into a commercial success and thus ushering in Britain's emergence as the first industrialised nation.

It was my great pleasure last year to accompany Emma Darwin, the novelist, during a visit to Boulton's home, Soho House, which is now a museum, which re-creates vividly his life and that of his fellow "lunaticks", who often met during the nights of the full moon at Boulton's home--the moonlight ensured a safe ride home (to Stoke on Trent for Wedgwood or to Lichfield for Erasmus Darwin).

A range of Boulton celebratory activities are underway this year (see, including a conference organised by my own university, The University of Birmingham. Unfortunately, it occurs at precisely the same time as the Cambridge Darwin Festival (to which I have already paid my subscription). But if you are sick and tired of Darwin and instead want to celebrate Matthew Boulton, contact Professor Peter Jones in the Department of Modern History on